The Indian Navy plan to acquire the Japanese ShinMaywa US-2i amphibious aircraft faces unique challenges in terms of the process being evolved to effect the purchase.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during his visit to Japan last May, had issued a joint statement along with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe which mandated the setting up of a Joint Working Group (JWG) between the two countries to explore the potential for cooperation between the defense and aviation industries between the two countries, as well as to figure out the mechanism and modalities for the acquisition of the aircraft by the Indian Navy.
The statement said, among other things:
The two Prime Ministers welcomed the expanding defense relations between the two countries based on the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation between India and Japan. The two Prime Ministers expressed satisfaction that the first bilateral exercise between the Indian Navy (IN)and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF)was held in June 2012 off the coast of Japan and decided to conduct such exercises on a regular basis with increased frequency. They decided to establish a Joint Working Group (JWG) to explore modality for the cooperation on the US-2 amphibian aircraft.
The two sides have held preliminary meetings of the JWG recently, since the meeting between the two prime ministers – said to be the result of the priority accorded to the process by Abe.
The navy is understood to be keen on acquiring at least 15 of the aircraft. The last amphibious aircraft operated by the navy were the light transport Short SA.6 Sealand aircraft, which were inducted in the 1950s and phased out a decade later. Since then, the Indian Navy has never operated any amphibious aircraft.
The Indian Coast Guard, briefly, considered the acquisition of the Russian Beriev Be-200 amphibious aircraft as part of a process to acquire Medium Range Maritime Reconnaissance aircraft (MRMR), which was subsequently cancelled in 2011.
There are two reasons why this process is significant. First of all, it represents a change in Japanese policies, traditionally informed by its pacifist constitution, in place since the end of the Second World War, which barred the export of military technologies.
While Japan barred the export of military equipment to communist countries, countries subject to a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) arms embargo and countries that could be involved in international conflicts since 1967, it extended the bar on export to all countries in 1976, with the United States being the only exception.
Japan continues to ban such exports and only allows the export of dual-use equipment, under which category the US-2i falls. Even then, the Japanese allowance remains a significant relaxation on its part.
Secondly, there is no close competitor to the aircraft in terms of features and performance, and the Indian Navy and defense ministry would have to evolve a process under the Defense Procurement Procedure (DPP) to make sure the single vendor bar does not apply to the acquisition process for the aircraft and/or put together a government-to-government purchase process with Japan, on the lines of the mechanism with Russia and the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route with the United States.
While this process is getting underway, defense ministry sources expressed mild concern that, while the objectives of the JWG include ‘cooperation on the US-2 amphibian aircraft’, this could end up with the long term objectives of potential industrial cooperation holding up the more immediate objective of aircraft acquisition. They pointed to the inclusion of India’s National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) as part of the JWG and said care should be taken that the objective of cooperation on civilian aircraft development should not delay the more immediate objective acquisition process.
That said, movement on this could be expected in December, with at least two meetings – a second preliminary meeting as well as defense minister-level talks on the issue.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who visited Japan earlier this year, expressed India’s interest in acquiring the aircraft as part of what was seen as a growing proximity between the two countries, both of whom have had territorial disputes with China.
India has been bolstering its airlift capabilities in the northern and north-eastern regions in a bid to provide better logistical support to the Indian Army, at a time when serial intrusions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China by the Chine People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have created much controversy. The Indian Air Force (IAF) recently made the Daulat Beg Oldie Advanced Landing Ground (ALG), just southeast of the Karakoram Pass, operational for its C-130J Super Hercules aircraft.
Interestingly, the US-2i could also operate from Pangong Tso lake (and possibly other water bodies in the region), divided by the LAC between the two countries in the Chushul sector, should the need arise, if the Indian Navy were to acquire it.
Speaking at the first Naval and Maritime Expo (NAMEXPO) held in Kochi in September, Commodore Sujeet Samadar, retired from the Indian Navy, who heads the company in India, told StratPost that although the aircraft has never operated at such heights before, it is qualified for such operations. Specifically asked if the aircraft could operate from Pangong Tso lake, Commodore Samadar said he could see no reason why it could not
“The boundary layer control system has unique features and it’s been designed for a particular performance, mostly at sea level. But the extension of the systems onboard allows it to carry out high altitude operations. At the moment, I think, that is what I can say. It can carry out high altitude operations, certainly.”
The aircraft can operate in rough waters up to sea state 5 with three meter high waves. It can take off in 280 meters and land in 330 meters with a maximum take off weight of 43 tons. It has a range of 4,500 kilometers and a top speed of 560 kilometers per hour. The aircraft’s boundary layer control system generates additional lift to allow the aircraft to take off and land in short distances. Its spray strip and spray suppressor prevent splashed water from reaching its engines.
Sources in the defense ministry have also indicated a level of interest in the IAF in the capabilities of this aircraft and the possibilities it could offer for air support in the region.